In August 1993, the magazine Elle offered a summer test on its cover page entitled: ‘Are you a whore?’ A real shocker—not so much because of the starkness of the question but because of the enthusiastic responses. There wasn’t a single writer or journalist of this famous weekly who did not respond positively, taking pride in being a bitch, a slut with no equal. In short, ‘whore’ had become a title showering glory on the holder—a sort of prefix in the game of love. The conversion of an insult into a matter of pride is proof enough that our world has changed. A taboo subject in the past, sex had to be flaunted now. There was a new snobbery regarding voluptuous pleasure, and no one wanted to be seen as lacking the necessary savoir faire. Thirty years of leafing through a certain category of magazines is like discovering an outlandish catechism of debauchery—one that is no less prescriptive than the catechism of yesteryears: try sodomy, threesomes, bisexuality, whips, are you a good lay, do you make love on Mondays? While death remains obscene and still in a shroud, dirty little secrets are out in the open, in the public arena, and all and sundry are jostling to tell their stories on the TV, radio and the net.
The emancipation of social mores has played a bizarre trick on men and women. Far from giving free rein to the joyous effervescence of the instincts, it has only replaced one dogma with another. Reined in or forbidden in the past, lust has become mandatory. The collapse of taboos and the right of women to dispose of their own bodies are coupled with an injunction of voluptuousness for all. The elimination of reticence has been offset by increasing demands—you’ve got to be ‘up to snuff’, as they say, at the risk of being rejected.
Sexuality was glorified in the 20th century as a tool for transforming the world, which was supposed to establish mankind in a state of quasi-perfection. And along the lines of the economic model, the ambiguous expression of ‘sexual deprivation’ was coined, implying a scale of libidinal prosperity. Hence, there would be the rich and the poor, pleasure- seekers and survivors, those who celebrated the body magnificently and those reduced to the strict minimum. Today, no one wants to be a sexual ‘have-not’— everyone flaunts an honourable service record, even in the dullest of marriages. Like one’s profession, salary or physical appearance, sex too has become an external sign of wealth that individuals add to their social paraphernalia. A new human species has emerged—that of hedonist ascetics who expend a great deal of energy to stir their senses and achieve a state of bliss. They work hard at their pleasure and are really tormented souls—enduring insecurity is the other side of the coin in their unceasing quest for pleasure. Such as, for instance, the young therapist, who never had an orgasm (in the Canadian film Shortbus, released in 2006) and spent her time masturbating frantically, seeking ‘The Big O’ like everyone else—the Great Orgasm that is not debauchery, but Grace, the Holy Grail, the passport to humanity redeemed.
However, there is a world of difference between what this society says about itself and the life it lives in reality. For the past half-a-century, all surveys on the sex lives of the French, Americans, Germans or Spanish have revealed that we are prey to the same obsessions, the same difficulties: male erectile disorders and difficult or impossible orgasms for women. The Kinsey Report, drafted in the aftermath of the 1948 war, threw light on sexual practices among Americans that were not really in line with moral standards. Our current investigations point to us being wiser than we think. We were considered shameless in the past, but today, we’re seen as braggarts. Our parents used to lie about their morality, but we lie about our immorality. In both cases, there is a disparity between what we say and what we do. Unlike in Freud’s time, the cultural malaise no longer stems from instincts being crushed by the moral order—it is born from their very liberation. At a time when the ideal of self-fulfilment reigns triumphant everywhere, everyone compares themselves to the norm and struggles to live up to it. That means an end to guilt and the birth of anxiety. However, sexuality is generally still considered something that should remain undisclosed. But people either boast too much to be credible, or hide it for fear of appearing gauche at a time when one’s private life has become a sport of ostentation.
THE CIVIL WARS OF THE LIBIDO
It is heartening to note that a new hedonism is spreading its wings in the Western world and facilitating the circulation of bodies. But it would be naive not to relate this movement to market trends, which in the name of understanding one’s own needs, are rising up against the moral order. The Situationist slogan, ‘To live without dead time and to enjoy without restraint’, was a consumerist ideal. It claimed to be libertarian but was just advertising. It is in the sphere of commercial galleries, the canvas and the screen that life goes by without any idle time, 24/7, where I can help myself to all products, glide from one chain of stores to another, buy and communicate with the entire planet. Our love lives and impulses imply delays, intermissions and outbursts, but nothing of that eternal glaze that is the world of today’s global supermarket. It would not be a criticism to remark to what extent hedonism—‘the insurrection of life’ (Raoul Vancigem), whatever be the sauce under which it is served: epicurean, anarchist or subversive—has become the new conformism, brandishing the flag of transgression to sing the praises of the way things are. Sex had made it possible to reconcile ecstasy and dissent. Today, it is the mercantile society’s most reliable product.
Since the last half-century, the erotic sphere has been structured like a sectarian field. It was with Sade that sexuality fully entered the realm of subversion because he turned it into a war machine against feudalism and religion. The only thing that mattered was to follow nature in all its excesses and lay one’s hands on the objects of desire, whether we were children or adults—all the better to blaspheme God, the aristocracy and institutions. Among all the great reformers, the purveyors of the joys of the flesh were far from the least outrageous: they were below-the-belt Inquisitors, they had the key to your salvation and would prefer to see you die rather than fail to adopt them. Evangelists of the queer, dissident feminists, polyamorists, disciples of the latex and the whip, sex performers, revanchist virilists, aggressive monogamists, homophobes and heterophobes, priests of orgasm—all just so many new cliques that deify sexual preferences by insulting them.
The ‘slaves of desire’ (Les forcenés du désir by Christophe Bourseiller) are slaves of the classification that encloses them in the ghetto of their particularity, to shoot red cannonballs at the rest of humanity. All those who curse false divisions imposed by nature, male chauvinism, the Church and the bourgeoisie are themselves trapped in the Narcissism of tiny differences and do not tire from vituperating against anyone who diverges from their opinion. The rejection of all categories translates into a new kind of categorisation—transgenders, for instance—that reproduces the designation that was being challenged. The virulence of social conflicts has been transferred to identity-related crises of a sexual nature. For instance, some want to be called ‘Fem’ and no longer ‘femme’ (woman) so as not to be reduced to their sex by the established order! This revolution uses a different spelling. An entire generation is wearing out its energy on these pathetic affected mannerisms. People flaunt their private lives openly and loudly through pressure groups, through ‘prides’; they claim to be activists for their own desires, so as to denigrate others’ desires better. The more alike we become, the more we hate each other, and it is only in opposition to others that we exist. If it is imposed in the name of an ideology of truth, even an ‘outing’ is not unlike police proceedings. It is like irrepressible summons that banish all indecision. One must say what one is and too bad for those who don’t know, who don’t care about being put into a specific box.
That is the strange conclusion of a liberation ending in aggression—it’s raining ukases and they’re striking us down! In the 1960s, they used to say ‘make love, not war’. Making love today means starting a war by all and against all. The idea that joy can stem from the touching of skins has vanished. Sex is no longer an activity; it is a club used to knock everyone else senseless.